Why João Palhinha remains the master of midfield destruction

It would be true to say that defensive midfielders don’t always get the credit they deserve.

Their output isn’t quantified in goals, assists etc, which are the simple measuring blocks that make it easy for fair-weather fans to understand which players are performing at an elite level.

But soccer’s statistical revolution has at least offered a peak behind the curtain for all players, with numerous metrics revealing the importance of defence-minded midfielders even in a sport that is obsessed with offensive output.

It’s one of the reasons why Fulham and Portugal midfielder João Palhinha is so in demand this summer – a player whose value to club and country goes far beyond basic numerical measures. 

The shield

For anyone that followed the EURO 2024 betting markets, it became quite clear that a trend for defensive, risk-free football was the vibe for the knockout phase of the competition.

So much so, in the Netherlands vs England odds for their semi-final, the correct score market saw three possible results – 0-0, 1-1 and 0-1 to England – installed as the most likely outcomes, which confirms how low-scoring the game was expected to be.

Similar issues with putting the ball in the net dogged World Cup finalists France at the EUROs, while Portugal’s inability to score a goal in 240 minutes of action in the knockout phase was damning of their underachievement.

Of course, some of that is due to the conservative mindset of the respective head coaches, but praise should also be given to the quality of defensive play and organisation – Palhinha just one excellent purveyor of that.

Prior to the semi-finals, three players led the way at EURO 2024 for successful tackles made per 90 minutes – Palhinha amongst that trio on 3.8. He also sat tied third in the entire tournament for interceptions made, so the Portuguese ace’s value to the team, while not measured in goals, assists etc, is still obvious.

Anyone that watched him play for Fulham last season would have been well aware of his talents. The 29-year-old attempted a staggering 152 tackles – a whopping 24 more than any other player in the 2023/24 Premier League, and only one (Sheffield United’s Vinicius Souza) won the ball back successfully more times than Palhinha.

No wonder his transfer value has shot up to a reported $70 million!

Respect on the name

It would be fair to say that defensive midfielders had rarely gotten the recognition they deserved until the great Claude Makelele came along and played such a pivotal role for Chelsea and France.

Since the ‘water carrier’ came to prominence, defence-minded midfielders have started to earn more respect – and for every graceful passer from deep like Andrea Pirlo, there’s a ‘destroyer’ like Makelele whose function is every bit as important to the team.

Palhinha is perhaps the modern-day equivalent, and whose days as a player at lowly Premier League outfit Fulham appear to be numbered. His worth is such that he is attracting interest from some of the biggest clubs in Europe – they too recognise his ability as a master of a particularly unique craft out on the field.

Wherever he ends up, one thing that is for sure is that Palhinha will continue to add to his burgeoning reputation as an atypical midfield superstar.